Aerial view of Lyon from the top of Notre Dame de Fourviere, France.
Aerial view of Lyon from the top of Notre Dame de Fourviere, France. vwalakte

Not Lyon, it's as good as Paris

Forget Paris - try Lyon instead. That isn't something a travel writer should advise, especially if Paris is on your bucket list, but Lyon is like a mini Paris, only more elegant, cleaner, easier all-round. This is my opinion only. Never let me turn you off your travel dreams.

Lyon sits on the confluence of the Rhone and Saone Rivers in the Rhone-Alpes region of France. It has nine districts centred around the rivers and a Roman history dating back to 43BC.

We knew little about it, other than it was the third largest city in France with a reputation for being the country's gastronomic capital. While food is a major drawcard - and this in a country where food is king and queen in every large town and small village - there is much in Lyon to entice you out of the cafes, restaurants and patisseries.

Basing ourselves in the Bellecour arrondissement in the centre of things, it was all about walking, heads craned to look at graceful apartment buildings with wrought iron balconies, soaring clock towers and slim church spires.


the apse of the basilica of notre dame de fourviere in the historical center of Lyon
The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere in the historical centre of Lyon. ventdusud

High-end shopping, modern museums, stylish art galleries and more than a good share of fountains and sculptures all call for attention and are within easy reach from the spacious boulevards and pedestrianised roads off the Place Bellecour.

The silk capital of France in the 17th and 18th centuries, Lyon still retains a legacy of the era when the silk merchants passed through on business and stopped to eat at small rustic inns, where the main menu feature was offal. Called bouchons today, these modest eateries are cheap and as popular as the high-end restaurants. If you are brave enough to eat sausages stuffed with chopped tripe and pig's colon, then jolly good luck to you.

Other safer bouchon menu offerings include typical Lyonnaise dishes of salad with bacon, croutons, greens and the signature quenelles made of fish combined with cream and egg, moulded into a football shape, poached and then served in a velvety sauce.

One of the world's most famous chefs, Paul Bocuse, was based in Lyon and his name is revered, especially at his three-Michelin star restaurant. A better option for the foodie with a slim wallet is the famous food hall, Les Halles de Lyon, which also bears the Paul Bocuse name.


Pastries that look like artworks at Les Halles, Lyon.
Pastries that look like artworks at Les Halles, Lyon.

Symbolic of Lyon's reputation for culinary excess, Les Halles de Lyon presents everything from pastries that look like art works, to hundreds of cheese varieties made by legendary cheesemakers. After a wander around this gastronomic fairyland, one of its many bars welcomes you to feast on seafood and drink champagne. It's a Lyon experience not to be missed.

Perhaps before you fill your belly at Les Halles de Lyon, visit the Basilica Notre Dame Fouviere crowning a hill in Le Vieux Lyon (the Old Town). This 19th century white-stone cathedral displays French religious architecture and is lined with magnificent mosaics. You can take the funicular up and walk down the many steps.


The cheese varieties at Les Halles will astound.
The cheese varieties at Les Halles will astound.

While a stroll along the Rue de la Republique gives you a sense of Lyon's emergence as a city of contemporary architecture, a random amble around the Unesco-listed Old Town, with its maze of narrow streets lined with Renaissance and medieval houses, gives you a strong sense of the past. Getting lost is essential. There is always a bar or bouchon in sight when you tire.

Good motorway and rail links make it easy to get to Lyon. Accommodation choices range from the high-end to the budget. While exploring by foot is best there are many tour options, including a hop-on-hop-off bus.

Lyon is the perfect French city break, a worthwhile rival to Paris. But don't believe me, go find out for yourself.